“Hail, Caesar!” takes place in the Golden Age of Hollywood. We see the motion picture business through the eyes of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer,” employed by Capital Pictures to solve any and all problems that might stop production, lose money, or compromise the image of the studio’s biggest stars. The hours are long and irregular. He often eats meals alone, his kids already in bed. He smokes against his wife’s wishes. Every night, he confesses the previous day’s sins to a priest.
But Eddie Mannix is conflicted. He’s being courted by the Lockheed Corporation, which specializes in aerospace. They’re offering him a better title, better pay, and better hours so that he can see his kids more often. He meets secretly at lunch with a Lockheed representative. He shows Mannix a photo of a mushroom cloud over the Pacific Ocean, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb. “We’re invested in the future,” he says. At the film’s end, Mannix pens a response to the offer: “Thanks but no thanks.” He’s happy working for the movie industry. The camera lurches over the studio warehouses to give us a full, glorious view of Hollywood, California. It’s a moment of mock-triumph, but I didn’t feel the mocking and was left looking for the triumph.
The main issue with “Hail, Caesar!” is that it’s hopelessly bloated. The actors are having too much fun to look around and wonder why the scene they’re filming matters at all. Most of the characters are only marginally related to the main conflict, which is weak in its own right. The Coen Brothers are usually filmmakers of vision; the larger point is usually visible even through the many layers of their careful plotting. But with “Hail, Caesar!” I wonder what their intention was. More than anything, it seems like an excuse to cobble together a homage to classic moviemaking with a story hastily thrown together in order to justify it.
What is the story? Capital Pictures is currently in production on “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ,” a prestige picture about the life of Jesus Christ. It appears to be heavily based on Ben Hur, and in the title role is one of the biggest stars in town, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). But Whitlock goes missing, and it’s up to Mannix to find him fast so the movie can be finished. A number of characters appear along the way, including cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), snobby film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and screen star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). It’s a star studded cast, but within this script, it’s more like playing dress-up. Everyone squeezes into tuxedos and suits and gets to ham it up like it’s 1950, although Ehrenreich remains consistently enjoyable. Clooney is never more fun than when he’s in a Coen movie, and Brolin shines in the lead role.
There’s a scene where Mannix and a colleague are trying to figure out a publicity spin for Moran’s baby, which she’s having out of wedlock. They decide that she must have the baby in secret and then “choose” to adopt it as an orphan. It’s a cute scene, but ultimately we never see her have the baby anyway. The man she’s supposed to adopt the baby from, studio fall man Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), ends up eloping and marrying her, but we never see this either; Mannix’s secretary mentions it at the end as a one-off. It is yet another idea that simply floats around, occasionally making an appearance, falling into the background just as quickly. The movie is without tension or turmoil. The central conflict feels more like a joke. We’re waiting for the punch line, not the conclusion.
The budget for this film was reportedly twenty-two million dollars. It looks a lot better than that. The period has been flawlessly recreated in sets and costuming. The look of the movie is by far the highlight. Production designer Jess Gonchor has worked with the Coen Brothers on their past six films, and here he has achieved what may be his best work. The real technical accomplishment of the film is the film within the film. We see a scene from a western, a musical number, a water ballet, and so on, and each manages to capture the essence and aesthetic of the period. There’s little need for these segments storywise, but they’re well-crafted and fun to watch.
The movie is book-ended by Mannix’s confessional sessions. The second time, he’s having a crisis of faith-faith in the movie industry. He asks the priest, “If something is easy, is it wrong?” Stacked up against the rest of the Coen Brother’s filmography, “Hail, Caesar!” feels like an easy movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun for fun’s sake, and it is a fun movie at times. But the rest of the time is so muddled and disjointed that the viewer has no time for fun. He’s too busy trying to find the purpose in the film’s events. The drama is inconsequential and we never buy it as a legitimate concern. We’re left with some admirable set pieces that never mesh properly into a full movie. The Coen Brothers have never made a conventional or predictable feature, but they’ve certainly made a few minor ones.
Written by Lucas Dispoto